CORONAVIRUS

Congress passes $900B COVID relief bill. Here's what's in it

Pandemic aid includes historic measures, plus arts and mental health get federal cash infusion

In this Dec. 15 photo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaks during a news conference with other Sen
In this Dec. 15 photo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaks during a news conference with other Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington, while Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., listens at left. “There will be another major rescue package for the American people,” McConnell said Sunday in announcing an agreement for a relief bill. (Nicholas Kamm/Pool Photo via AP, File)
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WASHINGTON — Running out of time and excuses, Congress took up a $900 billion pandemic relief package Monday night that finally would deliver long-sought cash to businesses and individuals and resources to vaccinate a nation confronting a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Lawmakers tacked on a $1.4 trillion catchall spending bill and thousands of pages of other end-of-session business in a massive bundle of legislation as Capitol Hill prepared to close the books on the year.

The package, agreed to Sunday and finally released in bill form Monday, passed the House and Senate late Monday and is expected to be signed quickly by President Donald Trump.

Direct payments

It establishes a temporary $300 per week supplemental jobless benefit and a $600 direct payment to most Americans, along with a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses and restaurants and money for schools, health care providers and renters facing eviction.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on CNBC that the direct payments would start arriving in bank accounts next week.

For the payments, the bill provides $600 to individuals making up to $75,000 per year and $1,200 to couples making up to $150,000, with payments phased out for higher incomes.

An additional $600 payment will be made per dependent child, similar to the last round of payments in the spring.

The $300 per week bonus jobless benefit was half the supplemental federal unemployment benefit provided under the CARES Act in March and will be limited to 11 weeks instead of 16.

Other benefits

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• Rental aid: The compromise includes $25 billion for rental assistance, but it will take time for that money to get out. The bill extends an eviction moratorium only through the end of January, although President-elect Joe Biden is likely to extend it through executive action.

• PPP loans: Republicans were most intent on reviving the Paycheck Protection Program with $284 billion, which would cover a second round of PPP grants to especially hard-hit businesses.

The PPP rules for restaurants were modified after a Democratic proposal seeking $120 billion specifically to help restaurants and bars with fewer than 20 locations didn’t gain traction.

When it became clear the Restaurants Act had little chance, some lawmakers, as well as lobbyists representing the National Restaurant Association and the Independent Restaurant Coalition, pushed for PPP modifications they thought would provide partial relief.

Previously, the maximum amount a restaurant could borrow under a PPP loan was based on a formula in which its average monthly payroll costs were multiplied by 2.5. The new bill will change the multiplier to 3.5, but only for restaurants and hotels.

The formula change, said Sean Kennedy of the National Restaurant Association, “reflects that the food service industry, the restaurant industry, has been uniquely and obviously affected by this pandemic.”

Other changes to PPP include greater flexibility on how small-business owners can spend their loans. Sixty percent of the loan still must be devoted to payroll, but the remaining 40 percent will now be available to spend on personal protective equipment, training protocols, modifications to the property to protect customers and even perishable items. The ability to purchase perishable items was particularly important to the restaurant industry, Kennedy said, because when state governments order shutdowns, “our product doesn’t sit well on a backroom shelf.”

• Colleges and universities: The stimulus package earmarks $22.7 billion for colleges and universities, alongside $54.3 billion for elementary and secondary education. While higher education advocates welcomed a second round of funding, they had hoped for much more.

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Earlier this month, the American Council on Education and other higher-ed groups implored Congress to provide at least $120 billion to support college students and campuses. On Monday, Ted Mitchell, president of the council, which represents college and university presidents, called the latest funding “wholly inadequate.”

“The money provided in this bill will provide some limited relief,” he said in a statement, “ ... but it is not going to be nearly enough in the long run or even the medium term.”

• Transportation aid: The deal includes $45 billion for the transportation sector, including $15 billion for airlines and $1 billion for contractors.

The money would be used to extend the Payroll Support Program, which provided funds to keep flight attendants, reservations agents and pilots on the job. Airlines and unions have fought for months to extend the program, only to see more than 30,000 of their colleagues furloughed when it expired at the end of September.

• The arts: The deal includes $15 billion to help save the entertainment industry — the largest public rescue of the arts in U.S. history.

The money will help shore up the finances of hundreds of music clubs, performance spaces and other venues devastated by the shutdown. The hope among leaders of the country’s creative economy — employing 5.1 million arts workers — is that the victorious “Save Our Stages” effort bodes well for future aid.

• Mental health: The package designates roughly $4.25 billion for mental health and substance use disorders.

The funding — just a portion of what was sought by experts — is the largest amount behavioral health has received in a single spending bill in recent memory, and represents growing awareness of the mental toll the pandemic is taking on the country, mental health advocates said.

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Still, behavioral health providers said it is insufficient and arrives months after the country’s mental health has alarmingly deteriorated.

• Climate change: In one of the biggest victories for U.S. climate action in a decade, Congress moved to phase out a class of planet-warming chemicals and provide billions for renewable energy and efforts to suck carbon from the atmosphere.

The package cuts the use of hydrofluorocarbons — chemicals used in air conditioners and refrigerators that are hundreds of times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide. It would authorize new renewable energy measures, including tax credit extensions and new research and development programs for solar, wind and energy storage; funding for energy efficiency projects; upgrades to the electric grid and a new commitment to research on removing carbon from the atmosphere.

More to come?

Democrats acknowledged it wasn’t as robust a relief package as they initially sought or, they say, the country needs.

“This deal is not everything I want not by a long shot,” said Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, R-Mass., a long-standing voice in the party’s liberal wing.

Democrats promised more aid to come once Biden takes office, but Republicans were signaling a wait-and-see approach.

The overall measure would fund the government through September, wrapping a year’s worth of action on annual spending bills into a single package that never saw Senate committee or floor debate.

The governmentwide appropriations bill was likely to provide a last $1.4 billion installment for Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall as a condition of winning his signature. The Pentagon would get $696 billion.

Democrats and Senate Republicans prevailed in a bid to use bookkeeping maneuvers to squeeze $12.5 billion more for domestic programs,

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The measure was an engine to carry much of Capitol Hill’s unfinished business, including an almost 400-page water resources bill that targets $10 billion for 46 Army Corps of Engineers flood control, environmental and coastal protection projects. Another addition would extend a batch of expiring tax breaks, such as one for craft brewers, wineries and distillers.

It also includes $7 billion to increase access to broadband, $4 billion to help other nations vaccinate their people, $14 billion for transit systems, $1 billion for Amtrak and $2 billion for airports and concessionaires.

For college financial aid, lawmakers agreed to reinstate Pell eligibility for students affected by for-profit college closures and ensure that all families who make less than 175 percent — and single parents who make less than 225 percent — of the federal poverty level will receive a maximum award. Lawmakers say those changes will enable an additional 1.7 million students to qualify for the maximum award each year and make another 555,000 newly eligible.

The final agreement would add to a national debt that has spiked by $7 trillion to $27.5 trillion during Trump’s term.

The Associated Press and Washington Post contributed.

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